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As the 1930s and 1940s slip into history, obituaries in the English newspapers of record still give some lingering idea of what it was like to be alive in those fateful decades. Here are men whose courage in one or another of the armed forces contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany. To judge from the normal lives these men led afterwards, heroism was all in a day’s work for them. And then there are the Communists of the period, of course writers, journalists, and academics to the fore, but also churchmen, aristocrats, trade unionists, miners, flapper girls, and film stars, the lot. Prince Potemkin had once put up false villages whose pretense to prosperity hid the background misery, and in just that manner the Communists presented the Soviet Union as the perfect universal society. For reasons that must go deep into the human psyche, Soviet deception met a corresponding need to be deceived. Replacing reality with illusion, rejecting cause and effect, Communism was an irrational mass movement the like of which had not been seen since the credulous Middle Ages.

A handful of former Communists tried to describe from the inside the wreckage inflicted by this ideology on entire nations and their cultures. They were either Soviet defectors or members of European Communist parties who had seen through the Potemkin façade. Each had the difficult individual task of finding the right words to influence public opinion. The Soviet Union disposed of a huge co-ordinated apparatus of Party members and fellow-traveling supporters. They were treating betrayal of principle, the use of military force, and the crushing of opinion as the modus operandi for the future. It was completely unforeseeable that a not-very-well-known English writer would alert the world by means of two short fables. Quite simply, George Orwell had found the form and the words to explode the pretensions of Communism. No English writer since Dickens or Kipling has had such influence on opinion.

The undisputed keeper of the flame nowadays is Peter Davison, previously editor of Orwell’s separate diaries and his complete works in twenty volumes. Orwell: A Life in Letters is an almost complete selection, supplemented by a few from other people, all impressively explained and footnoted, with cross-references, a chronology, and typographical signs indicating misspellings.1 This supersedes the four volumes of letters and journalism edited some forty years ago by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. To have Orwell speaking in his own voice while accompanied by so informed a guide is to recover more of his daily life than would be possible in a biography. To give only one of the details provided by Mr. Davison and new to me, Orwell was paid just ten dollars for each of the masterly “Letters from London” that he wrote during the war for Partisan Review. Whatever remains to be known about him must be pretty trivial.

Born in 1903, George Orwell grew up in an England in which he had his place and could count on the familiarity and permanence of it. Landscape, architecture, crafts, and family provided a bedrock of patriotism. His father was a retired colonial official who had served thirty-five years in India. An earl was to be found on the family tree. Orwell was educated at a well-known preparatory school. One of his companions there was Cyril Connolly; both of them won scholarships to Eton. Not long ago, a book turned up at auction that Orwell had presented to his classical tutor at Eton with a dedication expressing gratitude. For five years afterwards he served in Burma as a member of the Indian Imperial Police; by the look of it, then, his conventional father’s conventional son.

How it was, and why, that Orwell came to assert that he was a socialist is a puzzle that none of his biographers or critics have been able to solve. Perhaps the relationship of the British rulers to those they ruled in the Empire had offended him. Perhaps the stance was simply a matter of instinct and character. The sense of enjoying unfair advantages was enough to make rebels of a good number of Eton scholars. One of Orwell’s contemporaries in College was Professor Sir Roger Mynors, who became an eminent classicist. In the course of an interview I had with him while writing my book about Cyril Connolly, he said that it was always natural for intelligent Etonians to atone for their advantages by becoming Communists, and nothing could be done about it. In my day at this school, there were Marxists and Stalinists and Maoists, including a future editor of the New Left Review who precociously admired the argument of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the Sovietized French philosopher, that terror was ultimately humanistic.

Social masochism was at work on Orwell. In the intensive effort to be déclassé, he well and truly put himself through it. Changing his real name of Eric Blair to George Orwell suggests the manufacture of a new and different personality fit for writing. A disturbing glee emerges from the accounts he gives of the hack journalism and flawed novels he is obliged to publish, all the while sinking lower and lower among down and outs. Cheap housing, grime and dirt, bad smells, and horrible duties in a kitchen are to him what country house settings and their trappings were to Jane Austen. Describing how close to death he was at one point in a Paris hospital, he makes sure that the reader is more attentive to the slumminess of the ordeal rather than the fact of his survival. Uncomfortable and deprived of basic amenities, the houses he lived in were riddled with health hazards to someone with chronically weak lungs. Wherever he settled in the countryside, he set about growing vegetables and raising hens—Was this out of a genuine feel for nature, or role-playing about being poor and needy? Did he enjoy fishing for the sport, or because it is supposed to be how English proletarians spent their leisure time? As to money, he wrote to his friend the social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, “it will always be hand to mouth as I don’t see myself ever writing a best-seller.” Meeting up with him, Connolly was appalled that hardship had left “ravaged grooves that ran from cheek to chin” on his old school-friend’s face.

In June 1936, Orwell married Eileen O’Shaughnessy. In those of her letters that survive, she comes across as sensible and cheerful, as she needed to be. On the morning before going to church for the wedding, Orwell found time to write with typical obstinacy to a half-forgotten friend that he had “one eye on the clock & the other on the Prayer Book, which I have been studying for some days past in hopes of steeling myself against the obscenities of the wedding service.” On Christmas Day that year, he left for Spain to fight for the Republicans in the civil war. At that point deceiving himself that all those fighting fascism must share the same ends, he joined an anarchist unit. Eileen also came to Spain. This book has a photograph of a group of volunteers including Orwell and Eileen, the lone woman, watching a man demonstrate a machine gun. After some months at the front, Orwell was shot in the throat and hospitalized. In the Kremlin, Stalin had just given orders to murder the anarchists. Their elimination was part and parcel of the Great Terror that he was directing against Trotskyites. At the very least Orwell might have been arrested and imprisoned, but he and Eileen managed to escape to England in time.

Thousands of English men and women had been on conducted tours of Republican Spain, returning home eager to pass their deception and self-deception on to others. While still in Spain recovering from his wound, Orwell had written to his publisher Victor Gollancz, “I hope I shall get a chance to write the truth about what I have seen. The stuff appearing in the English papers is largely the most appalling lies.” The obstacles that he then encountered in telling the truth were to be enshrined in the British national story. Appeasement of Communism was a stronger influence on public opinion than the Chamberlain government’s appeasement of Nazism. The New Statesman, the voice of the intellectual Left, accepted Orwell’s suggestion for an article about events in Spain, only to reject his first-hand report of the criminal suppression of his anarchist colleagues. Kingsley Martin, the magazine editor responsible, was an archetypal Soviet apologist and fellow-traveler. Homage to Catalonia was Orwell’s longer account of his Spanish ordeal and his first political book. Gollancz, also a Soviet apologist and fellow-traveler, most certainly was not going to allow Orwell the chance to tell the truth. He refused to publish what has become a classic of reportage.

Rather than giving way to resentment, Orwell discovered his polemic streak. In a gibe that still reverberates, he wrote off the Audens and Spenders as “the pansy Left,” who could praise the Communists after a few days in Spain but hypocritically managed to be somewhere else when the trigger was pulled. Marx was the name he gave his dog. Himself an avid reader of magazines for the young, he fantasized that Boys of the OGPU (forerunner of the KGB) or The Young Liquidators would be suitable Left-wing titles. “What sickens me about left-wing people, especially the intellectuals, is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen,” he wrote to a friend. To Cyril Connolly, he took the line, perhaps not seriously, “We might as well pack our bags for the concentration camp.” Sometimes he exaggerated, for instance telling the public intellectual Herbert Read, “I doubt whether there is much hope of saving England from fascism of one kind or another, but clearly one must put up a fight.” He always maintained that he was a genuine representative of the Left. In a small but revealing reaction, he was surprised that a man on the street selling the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker nevertheless deferred to old habits and called him “Sir.” At the time of Dunkirk in May 1940 he hoped the British army would be cut to pieces rather than surrender. Expecting a German invasion afterwards, he wanted arms to be distributed to everyone. As from September 1940, Cyril Connolly started to edit the magazine Horizon with Orwell his star contributor. British culture and the interaction of class and politics is the theme of his wartime essays. Knowing him so well and so long, Connolly coined the aphorism much quoted for its paradoxical truth that Orwell was “a revolutionary who was in love with the 1900s.”

“There is a great deal of inherent sadness and loneliness in human life,” he wrote in one of his letters, and friends and acquaintances could sense that this was how he saw things. Atomic war, he thought in 1948, was a certainty. Hugh Kingsmill likened him to a gate swinging on a rusty hinge, and for Malcolm Muggeridge he was Don Quixote, “the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.” The girlfriend on whom he modeled Julia in 1984 objected that once trying to make love he had torn her clothes. The dramas of the last years of his life tested his self-control to the limit. He keeps on hiding his fatal lung disease under the term bronchiectasis. In June 1944 he and Eileen adopted a boy called Richard. Ten months later she went into the hospital for a routine operation in the course of which she died, presumably from medical incompetence. At the same sad time, he had difficulty getting into print Animal Farm, his fable about the Soviet Union, then an ally, and that too now belongs to the national story. T. S. Eliot, not a pansy Leftist, was one among several publishers to turn it down because this was not “the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time.” Put another way, even a conservative poet like Eliot preferred to suppress a masterpiece rather than criticize the Soviets. Other publishers rejected it for the same political reasons until Fredric Warburg came to the rescue.

Peter Davison goes straight to the point: “Animal Farm is seen as one of the greatest books of the twentieth century.” The exposure of Soviet reality in the imaginative form of a story about animals reached and persuaded a far wider audience than the Kremlinology available at the time. On publication, the Book of the Month Club had print runs of 430,000 and 110,000. “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others” has become a cliché uttered by many who may have no idea where this comes from or even that it is a quotation. So vivid, indeed entertaining, is the writing that children can enjoy it unaware of the anti-Communist satire.

Fame and sudden royalties initiated one last bout of masochism. He rented a house on the Scottish island of Jura, then a twenty-four-hour journey from London in conditions of good weather, forty-eight hours or more in bad weather. Luggage and food had to be carried from the landing jetty along a track of eight miles. As usual, Orwell planted up a garden. He had the occasional helper but fretted because Richard had nobody to talk to. Out in a boat once, they fell into a whirlpool and were nearly drowned. Rain and cold affected his health, but doctors were on the mainland beyond reach.

1984 was written partly in the house on Jura and partly in one hospital outside Glasgow and another in Gloucestershire. After the publisher Fredric Warburg had responded favorably to the manuscript, Orwell answered him, “I’m glad you liked the book. It isn’t a book I would gamble on for a big sale, but I suppose one could be sure of 10,000 any way.” The struggle to survive tuberculosis could not quite wipe away the success of the book as soon as it was launched in June 1949, six short months before his death. “We didn’t ought to ’ave trusted ’em,” an old and weepy minor character in the novel speaks for Orwell. There must be many who use the adjective Orwellian without being too sure what the reference is, and many more still who use it because they have lived under a Big Brother. He was forty-seven when he died. In every sense, 1984 was a last word.

  1.   George Orwell: A Life in Letters, selected and annotated by Peter Davison; Liveright, 560 pages, $35.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 3, on page 15
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